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September 25, 2017

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Europa League kicks off first legs for all-Iberian semifinals

MADRID -- While Barcelona and Real Madrid chase a "clasico" Champions League final, Sporting Lisbon is the only team that's keeping Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and Valencia from making the Europa League finale an all-Spanish affair.

Valencia travels to Atletico for the first leg of their semifinal on Thursday, when Athletic plays at Sporting looking to maintain its status as competition favorite.

Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has managed to get the most out of Bilbao's young, talented squad, whose brazen and fearless displays have seen the all-Basque club eliminate Manchester United and Schalke from the competition.

But not to be outdone, Sporting ended big-spending Manchester City's European ambitions by eliminating it from the quarterfinals to ensure a second straight all-Iberian final. It's just a question of whether it will be the second all-Spanish final in five years.

Bilbao already has a date with Barcelona in May's Copa del Rey final, and knows reaching the May 9 final in Bucharest would make this one of its most successful seasons ever. Bilbao is without a trophy since a league-cup double in 1984, and it's looking to reach a European final for the first time since losing the UEFA Cup to Juventus in 1977.

"We have to play like ourselves as we always do," midfielder Ander Iturraspe said. "We're not going to speculate on the result, we're going there to win, to give it our all like we always do."

While fatigue and a taxing schedule seems to have impacted Bilbao's league hopes, it hasn't shown any dips in concentration in continental play. Athletic is unbeaten in the last five games in the tournament and has won four of their six away matches.

Bilbao can also count on the return of forward Iker Muniain, who missed Sunday's 1-0 win with an eye problem, plus midfielder Carlos Gurpegui, who was included in the squad for the first time since a knee injury sidelined him in October. Defender Javi Martinez is suspended, but Bielsa still included him the team.

"We have experience with difficult games," said Iturraspe, one of Bilbao's surprise standouts under Bielsa.

Sporting's domestic form has improved since Ricardo Sa Pinto took over as coach after the firing of Domingos Paciencia, who had led Braga to the final against FC Porto last year.

Sporting is at full strength with only defender Oguchi Onyewu absent with a long-term knee injury ahead of the teams' first meeting since the 1985-86, season when the Portuguese club emerged victorious over two legs. It is looking to return to its first final since losing to CSKA Moscow in 2005.

Only Atletico has scored more goals than Athletic in the competition ahead of their rematch of a 2010 quarterfinal, which Atletico won en route to beating Fulham in the final.

Atletico striker Radamel Falcao scored his 30th goal in all competitions in Sunday's 1-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano, and has a chance to finish as the competition's top scorer following Klass-Jan Huntelaar's exit with Schalke. Huntelaar leads with 10 goals, two better than Falcao, who scored the only goal for Porto in the final last year for his record 18th of the tournament.

Atletico playmaker Diego is available at the Vicente Calderon stadium but will have to be careful as a booking will rule him out of the next week's return leg and the final.

Valencia has to recover from Sunday's 4-0 drubbing by Espanyol, with forward Sergio Canales available after returning from a long-term knee injury.

"We know we have to improve in a lot of aspects between now and Thursday," Canales said. "The most important thing is to lift our heads up and try to tap into that dynamic we showed before that game."

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